WASHINGTON -- With three Republican senators saying they will vote to acquit President Clinton on both articles of impeachment, the likelihood grew yesterday that neither article will draw even a simple majority of votes, much less the two-thirds required to convict the president.
Before the Senate concluded its second day of closed-door deliberations, the three Republicans -- James M. Jeffords of Vermont, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John H. Chafee of Rhode Island -- announced that they would vote to acquit on the perjury charge and the obstruction of justice charge.
All or nearly all of the 45 Senate Democrats are likely to vote against both impeachment articles, so a few more defections from among the 55 Republicans would probably prevent a majority vote for either article and would deal an embarrassing setback to the House Republican prosecutors who brought the case against Clinton.
"As one who pressed very hard for live witnesses, a wider range of witnesses and to bring the president himself before the Senate," Specter said, he recognized that only "partial justice" had been done but that the charges were "not proven."
As the senators approach the final impeachment vote, which will come late today or tomorrow, prospects for a formal censure of Clinton before the Senate departs for a weeklong recess have all but evaporated in the face of Republican opposition.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who has been a leader in pressing for censure, acknowledged that the 67 votes needed to overcome a procedural hurdle blocking a censure vote are lacking.
Feinstein indicated that she might circulate a letter of condemnation against Clinton for her colleagues to sign. The letter would lack the force of an official Senate censure, and it might bear the signatures of a minority of senators. But it would be made part of the official record and would perhaps be delivered to the president.
"One way or another, this is going to see the light of day," Feinstein said.
Senate Republican leaders are working hard to try to hold their ranks together sufficiently to produce a simple majority of 51 on at least one of the articles of impeachment. That would at least produce what Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, said might be described as a "hung jury."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott indicated his frustration in a terse statement issued by his office:
"We've come to the point many of us hoped we would never reach: The evidence shows that the president has committed perjury and obstructed justice. The only question left is, will the Senate vote to find him guilty of committing these high crimes?"
'A lot of pressure'
Jeffords said that "there's a lot of pressure on" from the Senate leaders. "Nothing dramatic, 'or else' type stuff, but a feeling that, 'Gosh, the House, they went all out,' " he said.
White House aides have begun looking beyond the final vote. The president plans to issue or read a statement almost immediately afterward if he is acquitted and to invite Republican congressional leaders to a White House meeting after the Presidents Day recess.
"I don't know that you can ever pretend that none of this ever happened, but the president said very directly in the State of the Union that it's the people's business that comes first, and in order to do the people's business, the president has to work with Democrats and Republicans in the House and in the Senate," Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman, said yesterday. "He plans to do that."
What the president will say and how he will deliver his post-trial statement is being discussed at the White House. Clinton had considered issuing a written statement, but White House aides say the president might deliver a televised address to the nation instead. No final decision has been made.
"A thousand flowers are blooming," said Ann Lewis, the White House communications director.
The Senate spent nearly seven hours yesterday behind closed doors, plodding through a score or more speeches, each of them lasting up to 15 minutes.
"I've heard this stuff so much I could give everybody's speech for them," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Half have spoken
About half of the senators have taken their turns, and Lott is encouraging those remaining to shorten their remarks or yield their allotted 15 minutes and issue a written statement for the record.
"Fanny fatigue is beginning to set in," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a Utah Republican.
While the proceedings were under way, Jeffords appeared on television and became the first Republican senator to announce that he would vote against both articles of impeachment.
"What is the justice being obstructed when the case is thrown out and then settled?" Jeffords said, referring to the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case against Clinton, who was accused of urging Monica Lewinsky to file a false affidavit for the Jones lawyers.
'A very low level'
"You end up wondering whether that's a high crime," Jeffords said. "Obviously, it's a very low level of criminality, if any."
Jeffords also said he had concluded that lying under oath, if Clinton did so, does not necessarily amount to perjury.
"The precedent you set for future presidents is very dangerous," Jeffords said.
Chafee called the impeachment charges "a very, very difficult case to decide."
"Overshadowing all has been the president's reckless, tawdry behavior, coupled with misleading statements, that have undermined the dignity of the presidency and brought about a divisive and unpleasant chapter in our history," Chafee said.
But he, too, said he had concluded that the House prosecutors had failed to prove Clinton guilty of offenses that met the "high standard" the Constitution sets for the removal of a president.
Split votes expected
A few other Republicans are expected to vote for conviction on one article and for acquittal on the other.
For example, Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington said Tuesday night that he would vote to convict Clinton on the charge of obstruction of justice but not on the perjury charge.
Of the two charges against Clinton, the perjury charge is considered the weaker. Many senators have predicted that it will fail to draw a majority of votes.
The outcome has been less clear on the obstruction article, though it, too, is likely to fall far short of the 67 votes needed to convict.
No Democrats have announced their intention to vote for conviction on either charge. But Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat, said the House prosecutors might have had more success if they had framed the articles of impeachment differently.
Kerrey said he was "very troubled" by allegations that Clinton urged Lewinsky to file a false affidavit in the Jones case. That affidavit might have resulted in a perjury charge against Lewinsky had she not been granted immunity from prosecution by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
"The president was willing to let her go to jail," said Kerrey, who suggested that he might have found Clinton guilty of an abuse of power if the charge had been drafted that way.
"But I'm not sure it's obstruction of justice," Kerrey said.
Sun staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this article.
At the trial today
10 a.m. -- Senate "court of impeachment" resumes.
Senators continue to deliberate the articles of impeachment in closed session.
If the deliberations conclude by late afternoon, the Senate could cast final votes today on whether to convict or acquit President Clinton on the two articles.
Pub Date: 2/11/99